HIV has hit our lives, our families, our economies; it also shapes the way we talk. IRIN/PlusNews looks at how the virus and its impact translates into everyday speech from the streets of Lagos to the townships of Johannesburg, and finds that despite the billions of dollars spent on positive communication strategies, the word on the street remains decidedly negative.
In Zimbabwe's Shona language, spoken by about 80 percent of the population, slang is called chibhende. According to Dr Robert Muponde, a senior lecturer in English studies at South Africa's University of the Witwatersrand, the expression speaks volumes about how HIV is understood and accommodated.
"Chibhende means speaking obliquely of something, in order not to blow its cover, or in order to speak about it more comfortably," he told IRIN/PlusNews.
In Zimbabwe, HIV is often spoken about as a thief (matsotsi). If you are HIV-positive, people might say you've been mugged, or Akarohwa nematsotsi in Shona, Muponde said. The phrase gives an idea of how the virus is perceived – as a sneak attack – but it also creates a space for discussion that otherwise might not exist.
"Sex is difficult to handle in a shy language like Shona," Muponde said. "Slang gives the unspeakable street value by making it look accessible and banal."
Felicity Horne, who studies AIDS and language at the University of South Africa, agreed, saying that while many communities struggled to break the silence about HIV and AIDS formally, informal or slang terms for the epidemic were proliferating and were beginning to construct a response to the pandemic.
"Language can neither be separated from our thoughts and feelings, nor from the social context in which it is used," she said. "Words and images create different conceptual realities of the phenomenon."
Organisations like SAfAIDS, a southern African HIV/AIDS information dissemination service based in Zimbabwe, argue that the slang used to describe the virus – which is almost uniformly negative – reinforces the stigma and fatalism that has proved so difficult to erase over the past 25 years of advocacy.
IRIN/PlusNews has compiled a short list of the ways people refer to HIV/AIDS on the continent.
Pisar na mina - Contracting HIV is like having "stepped on a landmine"
Bichinho - "Little bug" (the virus)
Kenya (Kikuyu, spoken mainly in central Kenya)
kagunyo - "The worm" (euphemism for HIV)
Nigeria (Hausa, spoken mainly in the north)
Kabari Salama aalaiku - Literally translates as "Excuse me, grave" (reference to AIDS)
Tewo Zamani - Translates as the “sickness of this generation” (another reference to AIDS)
Nigeria (Igbo, spoken mainly in the east)
Ato nai ise - "Five and three" (5 + 3 = 8, and "eight" sounds like "AIDS")
Oria Obiri na aja ocha - "Sickness that ends in death" (euphemism for AIDS)
Nigeria (Yoruba, spoken mainly in the west)
Eedi - "Curse"
Arun ti ogbogun - "Sickness without cure"
Nigeria (Pidgin, the unofficial lingua franca)
He don carry - "He carries the virus"
HIV - He Intends Victory (acronym of HIV and a phrase popular among born-again Christians)
South Africa (IsiXhosa and IsiZulu)
Udlala ilotto - "Playing the lotto" /ubambe ilotto - "won the lotto" (said of someone suspected of being HIV positive; Lotto is the national lottery)
Unyathele icable - Contracting HIV is like "stepping on a live wire"
South Africa (English)
House in Vereeniging - (Acronym of HIV; "bought a house in Vereeniging", a town about 50km south of Johannesburg, refers to someone suspected of being HIV positive)
Driving a "Z3"/ "having three kids"/ the "three letters" - All refer to the three letters in the HIV acronym
Tracker - If you are suspected of being HIV positive people say God is tracking you, like the popular southern African service that tracks and recovers stolen vehicles
amesimamia msumari - "Standing on a nail"; euphemism for being skinny, or being small enough to fit on a nail's head, referring to AIDS-related weight loss
kukanyaga miwaya - Contracting HIV is like "stepping on a live wire"
mdudu - "The bug" (refers to HIV)
Slim - Euphemism for HIV/AIDS as a result of the associated weight loss; less popular since the advent of ARVs
Uganda (Luganda, spoken mainly in the central region)
Okugwa mubatemu - You have been waylaid by thugs (contracted HIV)
Zambia (Nyanja, spoken mainly in the east and the capital, Lusaka)
Kanayaka - "It has lit up" (refers to a positive reaction from an HIV test)
Ka-onde-onde - "Thing that makes you thinner and thinner" (HIV)
Zambia (Bemba, spoken mainly in the north and Lusaka)
Bamalwele ya akashishi - "Those that suffer from the germ" (HIV-positive people)
Kaleza - "Razor blade" (Refers to a person being thin as a result of AIDS-related weight loss)
Ari pachirongwa - "He/she is on a (treatment) programme"
Akarohwa nematsoti - "He/she has been beaten by thieves"
Mukondas - Abbreviation of "mukondombera" (epidemic)
Ari kumwa mangai - "He/she is drinking mangai" (mangai is boiled corn seeds, which represent antiretroviral (ARV) drugs)
Akabatwa - "He/she was caught" (received a positive diagnosis)
Zvirwere zvemazuvano - "The current diseases" (the HIV epidemic)
Akatsika banana - "He/she has stepped on a banana and slipped" (someone who has tested positive and therefore will "fall" or die as a result)
Shuramatongo - "A bad omen for relatives"
Red card - Like a football player being sent off, life is over
Go slow - Taken to mean that he/she is now progressing slowly towards death
TB2 - Refers to high rates of HIV and TB co-infection (used to denote AIDS)
RVR - Slang for ARVs, adapted from Mitsubishi's RVR sports utility vehicle
John the Baptist - When someone has TB or HIV, he/she is said to have been baptised by "John the Baptist", who has come to announce the coming of AIDS
FTT - "Failure to thrive" (adapted from the medical phrase, now used to describe HIV-positive children)
Boarding pass - Implies that HIV is a boarding pass to death
Departure lounge - An HIV-infected person is in the departure lounge awaiting death
PlusNews is interested to hear from you if you can improve this glossary. Please send your examples, with a brief description of meaning and where the slang is used, to: [email protected]
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
Help make quality journalism about crises possible
The New Humanitarian is an independent, non-profit newsroom founded in 1995. We deliver quality, reliable journalism about crises and big issues impacting the world today. Our reporting on humanitarian aid has uncovered sex scandals, scams, data breaches, corruption, and much more.
Our readers trust us to hold power in the multi-billion-dollar aid sector accountable and to amplify the voices of those impacted by crises. We’re on the ground, reporting from the front lines, to bring you the inside story.
We keep our journalism free – no paywalls – thanks to the support of donors and readers like you who believe we need more independent journalism in the world. Your contribution means we can continue delivering award-winning journalism about crises.